Felipe Fernández-Armesto is a big-canvas historian...and he’s sticking with the broad-brush approach in his latest ... The book is, in fact, a very useful crib of the intellectual history of the West — mostly dead white males then — though [Fernández-Armesto] does roam further afield at intervals and is at pains to express the debt Europe owes to China for some of its most important technological innovations. His section on Mao, incidentally, is admirably savage ... What we get here is an urbane and civilised observer, broad in his sympathies, mildly distrustful of religion, very distrustful of certainties and enthusiastic about pluralism. You may not always agree with him, but he’s very good company.
My highlighted passages average about one on every four of his nearly 500pages. Fernández-Armesto combines a knack for aphorism with a hunch for speculation ... His prose sustains a reflective style. He rarely intersperses first-person intrusions, but his tone and gaze stay steady ... Necessarily brisk, Fernández-Armesto must pace himself as he crams so much into relatively so small a space. He pivots from taboos about food and sex, fundamentals of materialism and 'semblance', into agriculture...then to labor massed under tyranny. He conflates massacre with radical utopianism, shows how rulers concocted 'elaborate justifications for making others toil', and avers how 'imperialism suited monism' ...This professor distrusts visionaries, who promise perfection ... It's a testament to the care with which Out of Our Minds has been composed that, as Fernández-Armesto edges into our tumultuous era of Brexit, Trump, Catalonian unrest and Venezuelan implosion, he remains collected and measured in his judgments.
[Fernández-Armesto's] new book...is an effort to bring the methods of Big History to bear on the history of ideas ... ... Out of Our Minds is an oddly indeterminate book. Its author often sounds like a half- redundant humanist struggling to ingratiate himself with the new bosses. He deploys plenty of brain science, socio-biology, and the like, but the humanist breaks through, and regularly deflates the overbearing self- assurance of these disciplines. Fernández- Armesto acknowledges the outstanding intellectual particularities of the human species, hesitates to reduce these to mere evolutionary adaptations, and thus risks condemnation for the heresy of 'anthropocentrism'. But it is this nonconformity that saves his book ... He presents the intellectual achievements of premodern humanity with open-minded regard, and his book thus has a (small c) conservative tone. A great deal of Big History is marked by anti-humanistic (and anti-religious) propensities, by a cheerless desire to drain any existential awe from the cognitive experience of being a human. Fernández- Armesto is admirably incapable of playing that dreary game.
... appears at a moment in history when it is becoming ever more apparent that many of the ideas we use to construct our societies are no longer working, including foundational ideas of economics, politics and religion. The overarching lesson that emerges from the book is that further progress for our species will depend on our collective attempts to overcome wrong ideas and act for the benefit of humanity on what we have learned to be true ... While Out of Our Minds sets out the diversity of ideas that humanity has concocted, and makes clear the contingency and potential destructiveness of many of our most cherished thoughts, it says little about how we are to go about deciding which ideas will enhance our humanity and which ideas are leading us to destruction.